This work has been requested on loan by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the forthcoming exhibition, Diego Rivera's America, scheduled to open in November 2020.
Mexican painter Diego Rivera began his famed career as a muralist in 1921. And, while he had lived in Europe for more than fourteen years, since 1907, it was not until the early 1920s that Rivera became a key cultural player in the first social revolution of the twentieth century, by painting al fresco murals throughout public buildings in Mexico. During his European sojourn, Rivera absorbed almost all the artistic avant-garde trends from post-Impressionism to Surrealism, as well as studying the great masters--Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Vermeer, Turner, Sorolla, Zuloaga; along with Gauguin, Seurat, Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Ingres, Courbet, Puvis de Chavannes and, of course, Picasso and Braque; and a few of his contemporaries like Gino Severini, Piet Mondrian and particularly Robert Delaunay. Consequently, it is not difficult to find in his Mexican work, including his mural projects with their strong ideological content, explicit references to lessons from the history of European art. This becomes undeniable when appreciating a gouache executed by Rivera in 1928 in Russia, which demonstrates the artist’s talents fully. The work’s whereabouts remained largely unknown from 1949 after an exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts held in honor of Rivera’s fiftieth anniversary of artistic production. The work was originally commissioned for the cover of a weekly Soviet magazine, Krasnaya Niva, (Red Field) in 1927, which celebrated the anniversary of the Russian Revolution and paid tribute to the 1871 uprisings of the Communards in Paris.
In 1924, Diego Rivera began channeling his intention to paint murals committed to the 1910 Mexican Revolution’s goals for social justice. His artistic objectives were particularly focused on giving a voice to the struggles of the landless Mexican campesinos (or peasants) and fulfilling the aspirations of the post-revolutionary Mexican state. In 1926, Rivera was near the completion of an iconographic cycle for the former chapel at the old Chapingo hacienda—at the time, the site of the new Escuela Nacional de Agricultura—when he received an invitation from the International Transport Workers Federation in Amsterdam to join the celebrations for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Rivera was part of the Mexican delegation and was welcomed as an honored guest; upon his arrival in the USSR he became a member of the Friends of Russia Presidential Congress, a part of the official press committee, a distinguished painter and an invitee of the Soviet state. Rivera’s al fresco paintings executed in 1927 for the assembly hall of at the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura in Mexico were then the finest examples of art and political ideology within Marxist discourse; on the walls of a former chapel, Rivera reminded the viewer that socialism was a natural historical process involved in mankind’s evolution akin to the earth’s natural biological cycles. However, the political ideology depicted in the Mexican murals indicated that it was the historical responsibility of the peasant class to transform the post-revolutionary society of Mexico by working the land with the aid of science and new technologies. Armed with this Marxist artistic vision, Diego Rivera arrived in Moscow in 1927 eager to contribute his expertise as an artist, and to labor on al fresco murals on public buildings in the USSR. In addition to completing numerous sketches of the commemorative parades which departed from Lenin’s Mausoleum, Rivera was enthusiastic to share his proficiency in mural painting, but soon he was identified with other artists and intellectuals as having ideas that ran counter to those expressed in Stalin’s project for the aggrandizement of the Soviet Union. And, while Rivera was invited to collaborate with the Commissar of Education and Ministry, Anatoly Lunacharsky, on the decoration of the walls of the Club Dux’s banquet hall at the Red Army Club in Moscow, the Academy of Fine Arts, the future Lenin Library, and Dinamo, the metal works factory, none of these projects were undertaken, and only a few sketches are known to have survived. Unfortunately, Rivera sympathized with Oktiabr (October) group’s artists and intellectuals, at the same time revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky was expelled from the party and deported from the Soviet Union. Thus, by May 1928, Rivera found himself compelled to leave the Soviet Union, and with his departure abandoned all his artistic plans.
Three years later in 1931, Rivera was in the United States celebrating his first retrospective exhibition at none other than the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Here he presented the color sketch for the cover of Krasnaya Niva with the title, Communists of Paris, the same work he had executed in Moscow in 1928. Bold in rich and vibrant colors, Rivera captures the drama of the insurrection by the citizens of Paris who had succeeded in establishing a socialist people’s government through the Paris Commune, though it would violently topple in May 1871. Rather than using an allegorical feminine figure as Eugène Delacroix does in his historical masterpiece Liberty Leading the People—painted to commemorate the people’s uprising during the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris—Rivera depicts a matronly figure, who may be of Latin descent and who compels the people to fight and not surrender to the enemy of their social class. The work also recalls some of the fresco scenes executed for the Assembly Hall of the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura in Chapingo and emphasizes a Marxist historical perspective wherein the Soviet proletariat struggles of 1928 had clear connections to the storming of the barricades in Paris in 1830, as well as the Paris Commune in 1871. Within a single iconographic work, Rivera links his mural paintings in Mexico and their ideological content, his knowledge of European art history, and his experience in the USSR in 1928, where he recognized that Russian artists and intellectuals had to resist the Soviet State to defend their aesthetic ideals, and freedom of expression.
Professor Luis-Martín Lozano, art historian, Mexico City